Be like a train; go in the rain, go in the sun, go in the storm, go in the dark tunnels! Be like a train; concentrate on your road and go with no hesitation!“
Mehmet Murat Ildan
Introduction Top Train Travel Tips
Though I cannot travel by train as often as I would like, I always enjoy going by train whenever possible. (North and South America do not have many long-distance trains). I like being able to roam freely and, when possible, eat in the dining car. (The food on trains in parts of Europe and India can be excellent).
I have also met some amiable and interesting people on trains (like Dmitry’s story below, “We Smoke, We Drink. No?”).
While I don’t usually care much about luxury travel, one of my bucket list items is to take one of the high-cost, luxury trains available like the ones featured in this Travel and Leisure article. Let me know in the comments if you have ever been on any of these trains and, if so, was it worth it?
Yet, trains can be problematic at times. (I once bought a train ticket from a student in Russia only to discover through a very grumpy provdnitsa (cabin attendant) that I had to buy a new adult-priced ticket once on the train). However, you can reduce your problems by following the nine train travel tips below.
Top 7 Train Travel Tips
- Save significantly by booking long train trips in advance. In North America and Europe, buying a ticket up to 120 days beforehand can save you as much as 50% over purchasing the ticket on the day of departure at the train station.
- Ensure you are ready to exit the train quickly if you exit at an intermediate stop. One time, on a train from Montreal to Toronto, I exited Kingston (a worthwhile tourist destination, by the way). I began preparing to leave the train almost ten minutes before arrival. The stop in Kingston only lasted five minutes. Even with the ten-minute headway, I could barely pick up my small bag and get to the exit door before the train left for its next stop!
- Train travel (particularly in the Americas) can be slow and problematical when freight trains have preference over passenger trains.
- Express trains and sleeping cars can make train travel considerably more expensive than taking a plane. Intercities buses are usually the best option for budget-conscious travelers.
- Food on most short-distance, economy class trains is often overpriced and disappointing (particularly in North America). Consider bringing food and drink on board instead. I loved the food on Indian express trains, however.
- Make sure that you know where to exit. Make sure that you know the two stations before your destination. Be careful not to fall asleep and miss your stop. It can be difficult and expensive to backtrack to your destination.
- Finding space to store your luggage on some trains can be challenging. If possible, check the bags beforehand. If not possible, try to sit nearby your luggage or ask someone near your luggage to keep an eye on your bag.
Consider If Rail Passes are a Worthwhile Investment or Not
Rail Passes come with a lot of rules that can limit your flexibility. They were worth considering, primarily if you want to travel to many places for a brief time (under a month). I have not bought a rail or bus pass because I usually stay in one city for a week or more (and use it as a home base to explore the nearby countryside); Therefore, it was cheaper for me to buy an individual plane or train ticket than a pass. Passes can be a valuable tool in many long-term travelers‘ tool kits.
While everyone has heard about Eurail passes (check out Rick Steves’ website and guidebooks for sound advice on when to buy a Eurail pass), fewer people realize that:
- After purchasing the pass, they may discover that they could have traveled for less (and often more easily) using low-cost, internal European airlines and buses. This situation is especially true if they do not plan to check in luggage. (European budget airlines often charge as much or more for checking in your baggage as for the ticket. See my discussion on airline tickets for more about European budget airlines).
- The passes limit their flexibility to stay in one place longer (or leave a place quicker) than expected since they have to buy the Eurail passes before they depart from their home country.
- They cannot get refunds for unused passes.
Train Travel is a Great Way to Meet People
“We Drink, We Smoke, No?”
Sometimes it pays to take a risk on the road. I was transporting a lot of stuff on a night train from Saint Petersburg, Russia, to Riga, Latvia. For me, Riga was a short halfway stop, from studying Russian in Saint Petersburg to teaching English in Kaliningrad, Russia.
On entering my train compartment, a large, gregarious Russian man, Dmitry, started to talk to me. He asked me in Russian: “Where was I from?”. I replied the United States. He said in English, “We drink, we smoke, no?”
He brought a bottle of vodka, a large slab of sala (uncooked, smoked bacon), fresh tomatoes, brown bread, cucumbers, and a pack of cigarettes.
I noticed that the other two people in the compartment took advantage of Dmitry’s hospitality. So even though I’d read several admonitions against accepting food on Russian trains, I joined in.
After a bit, Dmitry and I started talking in Russian. He had been a captain in the Soviet army who settled down in a small beach town near Riga after his tour of duty. Every ten minutes or so, he would repeat in his gravelly voice in English, “We drink, we smoke, no?”
We talked most of the trip away. When we got to Riga, he carried most of my luggage to a baggage storage place, helped me buy my bus ticket for Kaliningrad, and even assisted me in finding and registering a hotel room.
He is not the first to share food with me on the road; I have never had a problem. Accepting food has helped me meet several people like Dmitry, who took time out of their lives to help make my stay in their country more pleasant.
Want Some Additional Train Travel Tips?
- Here are some train travel tips from Amtrak (The US passenger railroad company), Travel Awaits (Train travel in Europe), Rick Steves (Buying train tickets in Europe), Wikitravel (Tips for Rail travel), Boots-n-All (Train travel in Southeast Asia).
- Wikipedia has one of the best general guides to train travel tips.